Monday, January 24, 2005


While my last post might imply that I fall into the category of act-utilitarians, I am actually far more of a rule-utilitarian (and more accurately described as an egoist beyond that). We must go back to examining the fact/value problem to see the support for this viewpoint.

The logical positivist movement of the 30's is quite appealing to me, even if they have been largely discredited in recent years. We remember from out metaphysics that the things we perceive might or might not be real, but it is that which we perceive that dictates what happens to us. Because unobservable causes cannot create observable results, it only makes sense that those things which we define and identify with out world must likewise be observable. In fact, those things are not empirically provable (or tautologically true) are not meaningful in any real way.

Presently, we have no empirical evidence to support one a value system of any kind, leaving us in quite a quandary. On the one side we have our empirical facts, on the other we have our subjective value judgments, unsupported by anything factual, or so it seems.

Let us go back to our one lasting primary: the self. Without it, we are dead, so we must embrace it. While it doesn't necessarily follow that we must value the self, it does follow that without the self there is nothing to value. It makes sense from this perspective to uphold the self even if for no other reason than to open the avenues of opportunity.

We enter the world with our selves and we leave with it, in fact, it is the only thing that is constant through our entire lives, by definition. We must be guaranteed the right to that life, because it is the primary, the first, the foundation for the rest of everything we know or can know. It is the job of government to defend this right, not, of course, because the government is some God figure that saves us, but because we enter into a contract securing this right with the people around us for everyone's mutual benefit.

Left2Right recently featured this article attacking natural rights. While seemingly important sounding, it is in fact full of inconsistencies and difficulties in definitions. Her three main arguments:
(1) Certain types of property rights and rules found in advanced capitalism have no sound basis in "natural" property rights but are nonetheless essential to advanced capitalism. (2) Natural property claims do spontaneously arise independent of state action, but they are incapable of generating the distinctive form of property needed for capitalism--namely, capital. State action is required to turn property into capital, and such action will inevitably, and rightly, abrogate these "natural" claims. (3) A pure system of natural property rights with unrestricted freedom of contract contains inherent tendencies to revert to feudalism if the state does not limit freedom of contract by restricting property transfers from the desperate to the well-endowed.
First of all, Elizabeth Anderson's definitions of things like "advanced capitalism" and the like are highly suspect. That being said, she fails to recognize these things:

(1) The only "natural" property right is the right to the self and the subsequent rights that support this primary. Saying, "it's mine" must be sufficient, and the question is not begged here, it's mine because I was born with it, it's mine because I earned it, it's mine because it was given to me, etc. The examples Anderson uses are by and large not even necessary in a free market.

(2) Capital is an artificial creation by the government. It is my understanding that de Soto's findings regarding capital around the world both illustrate the potential worth of third world nations as well as a government's penchant for destroying the lives of its citizens by becoming overbearing. The problem could be avoided entirely, in my understanding, but removing the government from the economic sphere, taking away the idea of the label "capital" arbitrarily placed by the government. Perhaps this is a misunderstanding of capital in this sense, and if this is the case, please correct me.

(3) Perhaps I slept through 9th grade world history, but as I recall the United States was the first primarily democracies and capitalistic society, it was created as an escape from feudalism, and the United States, being for centuries the most economically free nation in the world, has not, as Anderson predicts, "reverted to feudalism." Limited freedom and restricted property transfers sounds like the very definition of a budding communism, actually, and we all see how well communism has done for the world in both practice and theory.

It seems Anderson's lengthy war on natural rights is nothing more than a string of misused terms and a string of thinly veiled socialism.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some critical comments to stimulate further discussion (and posts, I hope):

"Because unobservable causes cannot create observable results." This is false on face. You must have meant to use different words. For example, my hand moves, but we cannot observe the cause (neurons firing).

"In fact, those things are not empirically provable (or tautologically true) are not meaningful in any real way." What about highly probable synthetic a priori statements?

"We enter the world with our selves and we leave with it, in fact, it is the only thing that is constant through our entire lives, by definition." -- Is your "self" really constant over a time period? What do you mean by "self" when referring to such stability?

"We must be guaranteed the right to that life, because it is the primary, the first, the foundation for the rest of everything we know or can know." -- Rights emerge from necessity and need? Do you have a right to a meal?

Mises says capital "is a product of reasoning, and its place is in the human mind. It is a mode of looking at the problems of acting, a method of appraising them from the point of view of a definite plan." In a similar vein, Israel Kirzner points out, in An Essay on Capital, that something is a capital good because it is a way station in someone's plan to produce a consumer good." (from

de Soto's work concerns the ability of persons to secure their property rights. Property rights are critical to one being able to use one's property as collateral to obtain _financial capital_ . This focus is distinct from "capital" generally.


3:57 PM  
Blogger RCowan said...

A few quick responses to the points you raise:

I do infact mean that observable consequenses have observable causes, but I mean it in a slightly broader sense than you've addressed. Firing neurons are observable, with the help of technology, and can explain the effect, that is, our typing fingers. Other things, economic trends, for instance, might not be physically, tangiblly provable, but they are at least observable in the sense that we can measure them and predict outcomes. I hope soon to post a little bit regarding the scientific method and such, and this might address the question more closely. As for now the biggest counter example to the idea I've proposed is the existance of seemingly randomly generated particles and such in the realm of quantum physics.

In regard to "highly probable synthetic a priori statements," I'm reluctant to assume any statements as a priori. Remember, even the one major assumption I'm making, the assumption of the self, is more or less made after the fact, that is, after I'm already reasonably sure of my existance.

How and if the self changes is the topic of another post. I wouldn't claim that we don't change in the course of out life, but the self exists in one form or another through all of it.

I desparatly hope that I didn't even make an inclination towards granting natural rights out of a need for them. In fact, that idea is perhaps the most reprehensible that I can imagine in regards to this subject. Rather, I was positing that we grant rights to others and ourselves because it is in our self interest, and our mutual self interest.

Thank you for that little run down on capital. As far as I can tell, it was supporting my position.

6:10 PM  

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